WASHINGTON — The efforts of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) to save his political career from scandal suffered another blow Friday when Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder accused him of trying "to smear and discredit me" and of engaging in political espionage unparalleled since Watergate.
Wilder was reacting to disclosure of a confidential memo, as well as to court statements by a former Robb aide, that suggested that the senator's aides had been planning a secret campaign to discredit Wilder in the hope of distracting public attention from the personal scandals that were threatening Robb's career.
Wilder and Robb, both Democrats, have been engaged in a bitter intra-party feud for years. Three of Robb's former aides have now pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the secret taping of a Wilder telephone conversation in which he predicted the scandals would lead to Robb's downfall.
One of the aides said in a plea-bargaining agreement last Wednesday that, contrary to Robb's public disclaimers, the senator knew from the beginning about the illegally made tape and the way in which his staff hoped to use it against Wilder.
Following stories about Robb's alleged extramarital affairs and private conduct when he was governor of Virginia in the early 1980s, the latest disclosures appear likely to doom his career, political experts said.
Wilder called a news conference to react to the confidential memorandum, written by Robb aide Christine O. Bridge, that described the governor as "vindictive," "devious" and "untrustworthy," and outlined ways in which the negative attention Robb was receiving might be shifted to Wilder to thwart his presidential ambitions. The memo, written in March of last year, was published in a Norfolk newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, last Wednesday.
Wilder said he was "revulsed" and "astounded" by the memo. He said that it proved the suspicions he has held "for quite some time that there has been a deliberate effort on the part of these people to smear and discredit me, a sitting governor, and my Administration."
He added he had returned unopened the letter of apology Bridge sent him after the memo was published.
Wilder also said he had written to Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) to complain about Robb's actions against him. In that letter, Wilder alleged that Robb had enlisted staff from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which the senator heads, to also work against him.
"The whole sordid affair of illegal distribution of an illegally made tape recording, misappropriated federal campaign funds, the use of Democratic Senate Campaign Committee staff to discredit a sitting Democratic governor and the spreading of scurrilous lies has not been seen in this country since Watergate," Wilder said at the press conference.
The Bridge memo was written at a time when Robb, son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, was being hounded by allegations that he had attended parties where illegal drugs were used and had been involved in extramarital affairs, including one with former beauty queen Tai Collins.
It clearly showed, Wilder said, that Robb's staff sought to "deflect attention" from the senator's problems by attacking his political rival.
Part of that effort, the memo suggested, involved possible uses for an illegally recorded 1988 conversation in which Wilder discussed Robb's political problems with a supporter over a car telephone.
The tape was made by a Virginia businessman who later passed it along to David K. McCloud, a top Robb aide who pleaded guilty to one count of campaign fraud and two counts of wiretapping in a federal court Wednesday.
Robb, who was notified two weeks ago that he is now a target of a Justice Department investigation into the taping, has said that the tape had arrived anonymously at his office and that he had refused to listen to it or allow its contents to be leaked.
But McCloud, as part of his plea bargain agreement with prosecutors, testified that he told Robb nearly two years ago who had made the tape and that the senator had read a transcript of the conversation and had never indicated to him that it was not to be used against Wilder.